Wednesday, April 17, 2013

TOP STORY >> Here she is, Miss Jacksonville ’59

Leader staff writer

Inner and outer beauty radiate from Shirlee Walker, the third Miss Jacksonville, who was crowned in 1959.

The former Shirley Be Dora was still a teenager and thought she didn’t fit the part of a pageant contestant.

But the people in her life thought otherwise.

“There is nothing more permanent in your life than the people who helped form your character,” Walker said.

She was working at a dress shop for a “glamorous” woman named Mary Moak when the third Miss Jacksonville pageant was organized.

Moak had been a supermodel in New York City, Walker explained. Walker’s boss convinced the teenager to make a try at the title.

Walker said Moak taught her how to walk, talk and encouraged her to sing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” for the talent section.

“I was so stunned that night when they crowned me. You know how people burst into tears? I didn’t. It was a shock to tell you the truth because I never considered myself a pretty girl,” Walker said.

She continued, “Every girl should apply. Even if you feel ugly, go out there and try out. I would tell that person (who is thinking about competing) she has a lot of opportunities if you win the contest to better your life and to take advantage of every single thing.”

Walker added, “Your beauty comes from within. That glow will show on your face because it’s who you are.”

This year’s pageant was held in February, but Walker said she hopes she can participate in the next Miss Jacksonville competition. Next year will be the event’s 57-year anniversary.

Walker’s lifetime of experiences began with the evening she became Miss Jacksonville. It opened up opportunities she never would have had without the title.

One of those, Walker remembered, was cutting the ribbon to open Hwy. 67/167.

“It was such an honor to be there,” she recalled.

Walker said being Miss Jacksonville taught her a lot about herself and gave her skills that she used for the rest of her life.

She noted, “It gives you self confidence, a lot of self confidence. It gives you business sense because you have to pick and choose any contracts that come to you.”

Walker was a model for Wonder Bread, Coppertone and the Bowman Boat Company.

She competed in the Miss Arkansas pageant too, where she experienced one of her most embarrassing moments.

Walker described how the heel of her shoe got stuck in the carpet at the end of the runway during the introductions. She had to yank the shoe from the carpet to leave the stage.

But Walker turned the horrifying problem into a comical one. She held up the shoe, smiling and waving to the crowd. They laughed and the show went on.

Walker also reminisced about performing a song and dance as Miss Jacksonville at the officers club on Little Rock Air Force Base during a benefit show.

She met her future husband, Capt. Eric Walker, there. She said he told her, “You don’t know it yet, but I’m going to marry you.”

The captain was the only one who came close to asking her for a date while she was Miss Jacksonville, Walker said.

She joked about how the city would always have to call the high school to get her an escort to events.

Walker attended her high school reunion 10 years ago. She said one of her classmates told her he always wanted to ask her out. He said he didn’t because, he thought “someone as pretty as you would always be busy.”

Walker now lives in San Francisco, but she visits Jacksonville every year to visit her aunt and celebrate her aunt’s birthday.

Walker was born in Alexandria, Calif., but moved to Little Rock when she was 6 years old. She attended Central High School until it closed for a time because of the integration crisis.

Walker enrolled at Jacksonville High School as a junior after that.

Her family moved to a house on Martin Street in Jacksonville when her father opened a shoe shop in the city. He decided he didn’t want to commute from Little Rock.

The move made the teenage Walker happy because she was dating Biff Grimes, then-JHS quarterback. The two met at a football game where Grimes approached Walker and said, “I think I’m in love with you.”

Grimes broke up with Walker soon after the move because he fell in love with a younger girl, who he married later, Walker said. The two are still married today.

So, there she was, the new girl who didn’t know anyone other than an ex-boyfriend. Then there was the Miss Jacksonville competition.

“Everything started with the pageant for me. It gave me the incentive. I’m proud of who I am,” Walker said.

She and her husband were married in 1960. The couple settled in Saratoga, Calif., because of Eric Walker’s job as a pilot for Trans World Airlines.

He passed away in 1990 after having a stroke.

Walker has a son, Steven Walker, and three grandsons, ages 5, 2 and 1. They live in San Diego, Calif.

She earned a Bachelor of Science in interior design from San Jose State University in California. Walker also earned credits for a master’s in architecture, but didn’t finish that degree.

Walker opened a firm that offered drawings of building designs and obtained permits for customers.

She passed a three-day test to earn the certification required to do that kind of work in California. Walker was one of the first to earn the certification, she proudly noted.

Her firm worked on several vineyards and the dwellings of some famous people. Walker said one of the homes she helped with was built for a well-known San Francisco 49ers quarterback, but she couldn’t share the name because she signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Walker also worked with 49er Ronnie Lott’s foundation.

The foundation organized the San Jose project for homeless women and children. Many of the people the shelter helped were victims of abuse, Walker said.

The homeless women were given 90 days at the shelter before they were required to search for jobs in order to stay.

Walker’s committee taught the women how to dress for interviews, fill out applications and balance their checkbooks.

She was also an advocate for a 9-year-old girl. Walker would take the foster child to court when she needed to go.

The girl had been raped by her grandfather and four uncles. At the age of 16, the girl was able to leave the foster care system.

She went to live with her father, who had cleaned himself up through a drug rehabilitation program. So, the girl’s story had a happy ending, Walker said.

Walker is also a member of the Association of University Women and of the American Society of Interior Designers, which helps young people who want to get into that field.